For the second year in a row, the Metropolitan is the weakest division in hockey and it isn’t even close. Some teams are better than last year, others are worse, and anyone who tells you what the others will do is just a bit out of their mind.

Top shelf:

New York Rangers

The Rangers are a safe bet for the playoffs and likely for the division title as well. Lundqvist will be entering the season with a quality backup, and most of the key players in front of him healthy. Despite an injury to top center Stepan that will keep him until around Halloween, the Rangers have otherwise good health up and down the lineup, McDonaugh, Staal, Girardi on the backend, St. Louis, Nash, Brassard and Hagelin up front will do the heavy lifting for the team again.

Columbus Blue Jackets

Like the Rangers, the Blue Jackets have a high quality goalie, this one who just happens to be in a contract year. They also have an underrated defense group. Jack Johnson, Ryan Murphy, James Wisniewski and the rest will contribute at both ends of the ice. The forward group is unheralded as well, Brandon Dubinsky rarely gets the recognition he deserves, Scott Hartnell is a legitimate scoring threat who should be entering the season with something to prove. If Johansen can be signed, and retained, and Horton can have a healthy season, this team is going to be more than a handful.

Wild Cards

Pittsburgh Penguins

The Penguins have a lot of chaos factors to contend with this year. A new coach is one. Their putative number one goaltender is on an expiring contract and unlike Crosby, Malkin, and Letang was not extended early. They lost two of their top four defensemen from last year. Matt Niskanen was their top points producer and Brooks Orpik led the team in short handed time on ice. To replace them they brought in Christian Ehrhoff. Aside from the top 3-4 names, it would be hard for an observer to guess where the rest of the forward group sits as most of them look a lot like bottom line players.

New York Islanders

The Islanders actually made some smart moves this summer. They picked up and locked up Grabovski giving them a compelling one two punch at center. Their defense is a whole lot of young and learning with Visnovsky and Carkner for contrast. On the backend they have two goalies new to the system, the up, then down, then sideways Jaroslav Halak and the surprising Chad Johnson. I will be equally unsurprised if this team is in the playoffs, or in the bottom five in the league.

Washington Capitals

The Capitals are the east coast equivalent of the San Jose Sharks. On paper they’ve had the talent to win the Cup at lest once in the last decade, on ice, not so much. They too have a new coach, and possibly more importantly they have a coach who recognizes what he’s dealing with. Barry Trotz did what was probably the smartest thing a Capitals coach has done in several years and put Ovechkin back on left wing where he is most comfortable and had several pretty good seasons. The defense could shake out into pairings of Carlson-Greene, Niskanen-Orpik, and Alzner-Erskine, which as top six defense units go, is better than many can boast.

The Rest

Philadelphia Flyers

Even allowing for the Pronger/Timonen money once the season starts and he can be placed on LTIR, the Flyers are still in cap trouble. The roster genuinely looks like the team is trying to tank but just doesn’t know how. Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds, and Jacob Voracek are all top end players, the rest of the forward group and much of the rest of the roster feels like the punchline to an inside joke that you’re not quite inside enough for. That said, this is largely the group that managed to make the playoffs last year.

New Jersey Devils

On the plus side the added Mike Cammalleri and finally admitted who their number one goaltender is. On the other side of the balance they added Martin Havlat who is generally good for one bizarre injury and twenty or more man games lost. The defense is rather bland, no one makes over Zajac’s $5.75m and yet they are still only three million from the cap, all without their seeming to have found a backup goalie.

Carolina Hurricanes

The season will kickoff on a sour note with Jordan Staal down-checked for an unknown amount of time with a broken leg. Even assuming Jordan Staal and he rest of the top six forwards were healthy and productive all season, Caniacs were still in for a long slog. The teams defense has high water marks that are merely average followed up by players who are at historical drought levels of talent. It would not be a surprise to see this team draft in the top three next June. The only real hope in season for this team is for the coach with the enthusiastic backing of management to go with whichever goalie is playing better and not with the one they’ve been trying to pass off a a franchise goalie for half a decade.

The New Jersey Devils are outside the playoff structure. The New Jersey Devils have played more games than most of the teams ahead of them. Lou Lamoriello has assembled a team with a long pedigree, and unfortunately no future. Even with first ballot hall of fame induce Jaromir Jagr on the roster, and three time 30+ goal man Michael Ryder, the team is 26th in the NHL in goals for. The defense, and goaltending is in better shape, but any team with six players over age 35, including their top three scorers and the goalie with the most wins, isn’t fit for anything but the glue factory.

Its time to hit the hard reset and go for it. Adam Henrique is young enough to play all the way through even a five or six year rebuild. Travis Zajac can either stay long term or be used as a mentor in the upcoming transition and then moved for a missing piece if he’s not part of the solution. Jon Merrill, Adam Larsson,  and Cory Schneider all have their best year ahead of them. Damien Brunner is in much the same shape as Zajac.

As for everyone else: Fire Sale.

Last year at about this time Jagr was traded for a first round pick and two prospects. There is no reason he can’t be traded for more value by the Devils when the Olympic break is over. Michael Ryder who doesn’t have the same name recognition but is most of a decade younger with a year remaining on his contract should command a slightly better return. If Elias who has a NMC can be persuaded to go, he could easily fetch even more than Ryder since he lacks the New Foundlander’s reputation for streakiness.

Bryce Salvador might actually be the prize pick, he plays solid minutes overall at about 21 a night, but almost four of those are short handed and there are several playoff teams who could use him to add a bit more stability to the mix, he too has a year left on his contract. Marek Zidlicky is another guy with a reasonable contract, and who has to be asking himself how many more chances he’ll have to win the Stanley Cup.

Just among those five players you’re looking at enough return to reshape the roster, and the future of the New Jersey Devils. At minimum, that haul of resources should net them three first round picks, four to six prospects one or two roster players and two or three second or later round selections. This is completely leaving out pending UFA’s like Ryan Carter, Steve Bernier, Stephen Gionta, and Mark Fayne. They say the future is now, and in some cases that is true. But when you’re talking about sports franchises the future is built now is more true. If Lou Lamoriello, Josh Harris, and David Blitzer want to see a glorius future for their franchise, the time to reshape it is now.

The NHL has surprises here and there, injuries unexpected firings, and ridiculous hirings. But the for the most part, NHL observers can expect exactly the train-wrecks and triumphs that are written in the stars just waiting to be read.

7:  Jarome Iginla & Brendan Morrow

Both Morrow and Iginla ended up as part of the augmentation of talent for the Pittsburgh Penguins as they made a run towards the Cup. The team fell short, and what came next, should surprise 0.0% of hockey fans. Brendan Morrow who’s offense has fallen off the cliff since the 2010-11 season is without a contract. He performed like a third line rookie in the playoffs, and his skating was not impressive. Iginla on the other hand is signed to a contender having put up nearly a point per game despite the Pittsburgh Penguins season ending a lot like David Carradine, only without the consent or fun.

6: Nathan Horton Bolting Boston

When players who spend a lot of their career in very laid back markets without a strong (and occasionally vicious) media presence suddenly get dropped into the crucible of a major hockey market, the result is often less than pretty. Players have flamed out in Toronto, Montreal, New York and Boston. For Horton who spent most of his career in Florida where on an average day the training staff outnumber the media contingent Boston was destined to be uncomfortable. Add in six seasons of never getting to the playoffs and then suddenly winning the Cup, and he literally had no reason to stay. Columbus is about as close to southern Ontario as Boston, a quieter town, and as much as the team has improved, it will be a playoff team most of the next seven years so he wasn’t giving up much.

5: Bryzgalov goes Bye-Bye

Speaking of guys going from small markets to major hockey markets, witness the rise and fall of one Ilya Bryzgalov. Was all of his disastrous stay in Philadelphia his fault? No. Are the Philadelphia Flyers the kiss of death for goalie talent? Yes. Did everyone outside the Philadelphia Flyers front office see this coming? All the way across the humongous big universe. The buyout of Bryzgalov was both needed and inevitable. Sadly, he and his contract were not the biggest issues with Flyers, otherwise know as the home of things that make you go hmmm.

4: Russians Mute On Anti-Gay Laws

Whatever they think, Russian players in North America aren’t going to speak up about their government’s further encoding homophobia into the nations culture. If they agree with their home nations laws, they risk ostracizing here.  If they publicly disagree with the laws, the risk legal censure at home and possibly even being barred from the Sochi Olympic and other international competition. Here groups like You Can Play would keep them busy defending themselves, and well, National Geographic has convinced me I don’t ever want to see a Russian prison.

 3: RFA Contract Disputes Dragging On

The swallows return to Capistrano, and NHL teams drag their heels and try and sweat young players. Both happen with enough regularity that they cease to be amazing. Last year P.K. Subban’s contract negotiations dragged into camp, the year before it was Drew Doughty, this year it is Alex Pietrangelo. All of them are great young defenseman who any team should be happy to have and want to keep happy. But, these are NHL teams we’re dealing with.

2: Unsupportable Ranking of Sidney Crosby in NHL Fantasy Column
The NHL marketing department, which seems to have a super majority of the brain trust in league HQ, simply can not help itself, or the league. No matter what happens they keep beating the same drum over, and over in the same pattern. In the last three season Sidney Crosby has missed (113) more games than he’s played (99). His injury history should lead no one to think he’ll be healthy the majority of the season. Marc-Edouard Vlasic who was taken 34 picks after Crosby and started his NHL career a year later has played 49 more NHL games, Patrick Kane who was drafted two full years later and has suffered his own injuries has played just 36 games less. Alex Ovechkin, Andrej Meszaros, Andrew Ladd, Johan Franzen, Mark Streit and Travis Zajac several of whom have had serious injuries entered the league the same year or later have all played more games as well. Yes that includes 9th round pick Mark Streit, who missed an entire season.  So why is Sidney Crosby the #1 ranked Fantasy Hockey property? Because it sells jerseys.

1: Big, Dumb Contracts

Leaves fall from trees, cats chase mice, Matt Cooke is surprised when he is sent to the penalty box, all are slightly less predictable than a general manager in the NHL handing out incredibly dumb contracts sometime in the first two weeks of July. This year immediately after he was bought out Vincent Lecavalier was able to make it big (again) thanks to the generosity of Paul Holmgren Philadelphia Flyers General Manager. But Holmgren couldn’t help himself, he also made sure Mark Streit didn’t starve in the streets. Between the two he tied up $10,000,000.00 in cap space, Streit’s is a +35 contract and Lecavalier has a full no movement clause.

But Holmgren is hardly alone there. The Boston Bruins joined in by signing a goaltender who has never one a championship, not in World Juniors, World Championship, Olympics, AHL, ECHL, CHL or any place else to a contract they gave him $8,000,000.00 a year despite the lack of success and injury trouble. Tuukka Rask can thank Peter Chiarelli and Can Neely for buying a nice bill of goods.

Not to be outdone, Ray Shero’s golden handshake with Kris Letang was arguably the worst contract given to a defenseman since Dennis Wideman signed in Calgary. Letang’s playoff performance this year makes it doubtful to many people that he’s a $5m defenseman. Shero clearly believes that Letang is a $7,250,000.00 defenseman.

The Western Conference has already kicked off it’s final round, and done so in style. The East has its time in the limelight now.

The Rangers and Devils will at least from the perspective of travel both get to play as many home games as it takes to finish the series. That rest could come into play for both teams. The Rangers while a much younger team overall, have had several overtime games including that triple overtime game against the large and physical Capitals. The Devils.

The Devils have the advantages of two less games, notably less overtime, and more rest since the end of a not very taxing series with the Flyers. They may need it. They have a much higher average age, but also have their own rookies in the lineup. In addition to a legend in goal who is playing some of his best hockey in a decade, they have the most skilled player left in the playoffs Ilya Kovalchuk.

The breakdown:

Goaltending:

  • Lundqvist is having hands-down the best post season of his career, one concern might be that the Devils take more shots per game than anyone the Rangers have faced, and part of his success is that the Rangers typically allow very few shots.
  • Brodeur looks more like the legend than we’ve seen in recent years. This could be a tipping point either way. If he reverts to the player of the last two or three post seasons that will be the death-knell for the team. If however he has two strong games to start the series he will be in the head of a team who mostly grew up watching him.

Forwards:

  • The Rangers forwards have been enough to get the job done, but not spectacular. How well they do will be determined by how well Gaborik and Hagelin use their speed, and players like Callahan and Stepan distribute the puck in a timely manner.
  • Kovalchuk, Parise, Zajac need to push through a much better defense than they have seen this post season. I expect the adjustment to be harder for Clarkson and Henrique, which means it’s just about time for Ponikarovsky to come out of his coma and contribute.

Defense:

  • The Rangers defense is the most reliable component of the team. McDonagh and Girardi have been huge, Staal has rounded back into Norris-like form, and Del Zotto has been key figure, as a six man unit a defense doesn’t play much better. The question will be how well they handle some of the big, skilled, bodies of the Devils in a seven game series after all the hard play of the Caps, and extra time.
  • The Devils defense has seen its defensive defensemen earning the most ice time. It’s a formula that’s worked thus far. The Devils will need timely contributions from the more offensive minded defensemen in order to advance.

Intangibles:

Neither team has had to come back from being down 0-3 or run into a game they had to come back from four goal down to win or golf. But neither has had an easy post season, the Devils went the distance with the scrappy Panthers in the opening round, the Rangers will play their fifteenth game of the second season against the Devils. After health which becomes a huge drain this late, depth is going to be huge in deciding the series. Both teams have five players who have scored three or more goals in the post season. The Devils however who have played less games have gotten at least one goal from 15 players, while the the Rangers have had only 11 light the lamp.

These division rivals could also see the return of good scraps to the playoffs. 22 Fighting majors in six regular season games isn’t the type of emotion you can smother in the playoffs.

“Lazy Russian Count”*

  • Rangers: 1
  • Devils: 2

“Good Canadian Boy Count”*

  • Rangers: 10
  • Devils: 7

*Both counts taken from current rosters as displayed on team websites.